Essays: High-born ladies |
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High-born ladies

IT WAS a week of dreams coming true. In Once Upon A Time ... Is Now (BBC1) the dream coming true was Grace Kelly’s, who might have remained nothing but a millionaire’s beautiful daughter turned model and film star if it had not been for the intervention of a fairy prince.

‘Once Upon A Time ... Is Now.’ What kind of a title ... is that? was the first thought that sprang to mind. But it was no use asking yourself such questions, since the theme song was already being laid upon you, courtesy of Johnny Mathis. ‘Dreams can happen if you let them,’ wailed Johnny, ‘and if they do, don’t be af-RAYD!’ It was never made clear what Grace Kelly had to be afraid of. Afraid of not being able to take full advantage of all the privileges and opportunities heaped upon her?

As became apparent from the outset of her career, there was no reason to be afraid that she would make any unwise choices. She did the right thing by instinct, every time. It is always a mistake to suppose that women like Her Serene Highness are calculating. The imprecations hurled at Jacqueline Kennedy, for example, are wasted. Such women gravitate towards wealth and position as naturally and inexorably as the solar system flies towards the constellation Hercules. It is because they are untroubled by any contrary desires.

Her Serene Highness, in her days as Grace Kelly, gave a better imitation of being an actress than any other high-born lady at that time was able to manage. She succeeded where the likes of Lee Radziwill failed. But she was not really a dedicated actress — she just had, to a high degree, what in polite circles used to be called accomplishments. When the time came for her to choose between acting and marrying her fairy prince, she was able to make the choice and flourish. For a true artist the decision would not have been so easy. But Her Serene Highness obviously saw no real conflict. She had done that, and now it was time to do this.

In short, she is not very interesting. There is therefore nothing to stop her being very nice. On the evidence of this programme, her conversation is scarcely sparkling (Gary Cooper, we learned to our astonishment, was ‘a gentle, shy sort of person’), but her uncomplicated personality is more than sufficiently disarming to explain why so many hard-bitten Hollywood types worshipped her. Several of these duly appeared, gushing suitably. Her Serene Highness was interviewed by Lee Grant, breathless with the wonder of it all. There was a telling little staged scene in which Her Serene Highness instructed Princess Caroline on which invitations to accept and which to turn down. One fixture in particular had to be avoided, since it was bound to be ‘a mess.’ Will Caroline ever realise that the messes are where the life is? But no. Too late. She already has that serene look.

Antonia Fraser has the serene look too, but she is less banal. Aristocrat, beauty, biographer, novelist and now playwright, the author of Charades (BBC1) might seem unlikely casting as an innocent, but that, I am convinced, is what she essentially is. We know from many an interview and feature article that she is highly organised along Superwoman lines, with postcards already stamped before they are written on and all duties promptly attended to. In her work the 1 per cent inspiration might be lacking, but 100 per cent perspiration is there to make up for it. Thoroughly planned and relentlessly executed, her whole career is a stunning logistic performance. She does that, and then it is time to do this.

Yet beneath it all pulses the most unquenchable romanticism. Life is viewed as a box of chocolates with intoxicating centres. Passion must conquer all and lovers flee away into the storm. When a blue-blooded lady who owns a castle in Scotland writes a play about a blue-blooded lady who owns a castle in Scotland, it is hard not to connect the lady in the play with the lady who wrote it. Only a true innocent would imagine that the viewer could do anything else. ‘I must say, darling, you have a divine bedroom,’ chirped the heroine’s friend. ‘It was here already like everything else,’ trilled the heroine. ‘Aren’t I lucky?’ And instinctively the actress adopted the serene look.

But to be fair, all was not plain sailing in the life of the beautiful Davina. (The dramatis personae also included a Torquil.) ‘It’s all the feudal stuff that seems so far away,’ she proclaimed. ‘I don’t want anyone to curtsey to me.’ But the egalitarian present turned out to be haunted by the past, in which her previous self had an affair with the ghillie, while her previous self’s husband was enamoured of the housekeeper. Her previous self’s husband forced her previous self to swap identities with the housekeeper. Sinister games were played. There was elliptical dialogue. There were ... pauses. A Vague Air of Menace was generated.

In the end the play amounted to little more than an assurance on the part of its author that being serene isn’t as easy as it looks. But there was promise here, which she ought to follow up. Perhaps she could write a play about an aristocratic lady who wants to succeed as a writer but is hampered by the activities of her crazed father, who considers himself divinely appointed to go on television and forgive criminals. One night she is due to appear on ‘Read All About It,’ but her father has murdered Melvyn Bragg and taken his place...

Yet there is no mocking Antonia Fraser, who was bound to be more interesting than Grace Kelly if only because imbued with conflicting desires: she wants to be everything. So, in her way, does Jane Manders, who in the latest instalment of The Big Time (BBC1) got a chance to be a beauty queen. In the normal course of events Jane would have lived out her life as a mere school-teacher, but now she was being given the chance to move in a more exciting world.

Jane met four quondam title-holders, whose advice must have been a revelation to her. The secret of smiling naturally, she was told, is to smile naturally. She met a swoopy dress-designer who referred to her breasts as boobs. So did the lady in charge of swim-suits. ‘Your boobs are a bit bigger than the cups, actually,’ she quacked. In no time Jane was calling them boobs too.

Jean Rook, self-proclaimed ‘biggest bitch in Fleet Street,’ quoted some of her own mortal prose to prove that Jane would change. For once Rook looked like being correct. ‘The transformation is complete,’ somebody said. He was almost right. Jane, who had started off as a personable girl, now looked like a hooker; only her father could believe her to be more lovely instead of less. But Jane still firmly insisted on being a school-teacher. Unsophisticated but sensible, she knew that a dream life is not worth leading. Not really.

The Observer, 18th December 1977